Home Articles Have you heard of Motivator-Hygiene Theory? It’s about separating a client’s wants...

Have you heard of Motivator-Hygiene Theory? It’s about separating a client’s wants from their needs.


Way back when I was studying for my MBA (which I never quite finished. I started a business instead), I came across an organisational psychology concept called the Motivator-Hygiene Theory which claims:

“The things that satisfy and motivate us are not the same things that dissatisfy and demotivate us.”

Say you’re an employee in the IT industry. Examples of things that dissatisfy, grouped together as ‘hygiene’ factors, are:

  • Sluggish computers when we’re trying to get something done
  • Dirty and cluttered working environments that aren’t pleasing to the eye
  • Not being paid what we’re ‘worth’ compared to industry standards

On the flip side, examples of things that satisfy us can be grouped into ‘motivator’ factors, such as:

  • Learning new and exciting technologies
  • Getting to apply that new knowledge at work
  • Interesting projects that enable us to learn and grow as a professional
  • Working with smart people that we can learn from
  • Having a computer (or laptop) that our colleagues are envious of because of its performance

What gets us out of bed in the morning

You’ll notice that the factors that make us feel unsatisfied and unappreciated aren’t necessarily the same as what gets us out of bed in the morning with a bounce.

If we finally get a computer that’s fast enough to get our work done, the dissatisfaction is removed. But a computer that’s faster than we need doesn’t automatically motivate us, it just removes the dissatisfaction. However if we get a computer that our colleagues are jealous of because of its mind-blowing specifications, we’re happy because we’ve attained some form of implicit ‘geek cred’.

If we work in a dirty office that all of a sudden gets cleaned to clinical laboratory levels, we don’t automatically start wanting to come to work. We just have the dissatisfaction of working in a rubbish dump removed.

If we get a pay rise to somewhere around the industry-average salary for our skills, we’re satisfied. But if we then get another $10,000 per year budget to spend on conferences and training we will have far more motivational bang-for-buck than if we just pocketed the after-tax cash.

Do you see the pattern?  Some of these examples are intuitive (e.g. being recognised satisfies and motivates us) and some may not be (e.g. being overpaid satisfies but does not motivate), but that’s what’s fascinating about this theory.

So what’s our point?

…We’re so glad you asked.

Clients are people. You don’t sell to an organisation, you sell to the CIO or IT Manager who’s a real person with their own set of beliefs, needs and foibles.

In order to establish an effective relationship with your clients you must understand the business problem that your customer needs fixed and what they want personally out of the engagement with you. Or, in the context of the earlier discussion, what would make them satisfied and what would make them happy.

In our line of work (at  Mexia Consulting), we specialise in enterprise system integration, which basically means we enable business applications to talk to one other. But when it comes to solving business problems, technical skills are only half of the equation.

Your client’s need for you to be technically competent is simply a hygiene factor in their decision to use you over one of your competitors. If it turns out that you don’t have the required technical skills to solve the business problem, they will be deeply unsatisfied with you. However, as long as you’re technically competent to get the job done to a high quality, they’ll simply be just satisfied and not necessarily motivated to use you again.

If you want them to want you to come back and solve more problems for them, you’ll need to figure out what their motivators are for choosing you over your competitors time and time again. In addition to being technical competent, you also need to solve the problems that matter to them as people.

Clients want to feel like they’ve made a good decision to engage with your company, and that you’ve helped them fulfil their own professional goals.

Be essential

By far and away the best situation to get into is when your client can’t achieve their business goals without you.

The good news is that what matters to your clients personally transcends individual project boundaries and applies equally to their overall job description, their careers, their professional status and their reputation.

It all boils down to a simple question: are you fantastic at delivering projects and getting things done for the client?

Dean Robertson is the founder and technical director of Mexia, a specialist provider of integration expertise and software development services focussed purely on the Microsoft technology stack. He has ten years’ experience in the IT industry, focussed primarily on integration architecture and middleware systems for Government, banking, finance and transportation organisations in both Australia and the UK.